Book Review: Go South, Young Man
A critical vision of American life and letters
Dec 20, 2010, Vol. 16, No. 14 • By JAMES SEATON
The Southern Critics
John Crowe Ransom
Bettmann / Corbis
For decades the most damning argument against the New Criticism was that its focus on close reading of “the work itself” was politically reactionary and probably racist. If a New Critic like Cleanth Brooks in The Well Wrought Urn found irony, ambiguity, and complexity not only in T. S. Eliot but in Robert Herrick, John Keats, and even Tennyson, it must be (so the indictment charged) because he and the other New Critics wanted to denigrate the possibility of clear moral and political judgments in general and the condemnation of the South for segregation and slavery in particular.
One answer to this charge has been that the New Criticism deserved to be judged on its merits for its ability to illuminate literary works, without regard to the political and social views of its practitioners. Yes, some of the leading New Critics like John Crowe Ransom, Robert Penn Warren, and Allen Tate were among the self-professed “Southern Agrarians” who had defended segregation and, at least by implication, slavery, in their manifesto I’ll Take My Stand (1930), but their ideas about literature were one thing and their views about politics and society another. Glenn Arbery, editor of this anthology, takes another path. He argues that there is, indeed, a connection between the social views of the New Critics and their ideas about literature, but The Southern Critics is designed to demonstrate that the relationship should not discredit their literary criticism but rather encourage a favorable reassessment of their thinking about culture and society.
Arbery points out that received opinion in the 21st century is much more friendly to some key theses of the Southern Agrarians than it was in the 1930s. Both technology and capitalism have recently undergone severe criticism, especially from the political left that was once the main opponent of the Agrarians. Today, Arbery notes, I’ll Take My Stand’s denunciation of the effects of industrialism and technology has been taken up and amplified by the very scientific experts and Eastern media whose authority the Agrarians once defied so vehemently: “Now virtually the whole scientific community, if the New Yorker and the New York Times are to be believed, has become Cassandra, warning the world of impending disasters that the abuse of technology has made inevitable.”
Similarly, the financial crisis that played a crucial role in the last presidential election has brought the left-liberal consensus closer to the anticapitalist sentiments voiced by the Agrarians 80 years ago. Arbery comments that “after the financial collapse of 2008, it would be hard to argue the point” Allen Tate made in 1936 when he asserted that “finance capitalism” was “necessarily hostile to the development of a moral nature.”
The political and social ideas presented in the first section of The Southern Critics, “In Dixieland,” now seem more “left” than “right” but remain problematic, while “The Case for Poetry” in the second section is as convincing as ever. Though the final section, “The Sacramental South,” was clearly intended to convey what Arbery calls “the sacramental vision implicit in the South,” only one of the essays does much to illuminate Southern religion and culture. Allen Tate’s two studies of Poe and Dante are perceptive as literary criticism, but say nothing about Southern religion. Caroline Gordon’s “Some Readings and Misreadings,” which focuses on Graham Greene, Henry James, James Joyce, George Bernanos, François Mauriac, and Evelyn Waugh, does not discuss Southern religion or culture, even in the one paragraph she devotes to William Faulkner. Only Flannery O’Connor, in “The Catholic Novelist in the Protestant South,” illuminates the world of “the Bible Belt, where belief can be made believable.”